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How Sonoma County teachers instruct the post-9/11 generation to ‘never forget’

“If we don’t keep telling the story, it becomes a glazed over chapter in the history book,” said Matt Transue, a history teacher at Rancho Cotate High School. “It’s too important to forget.”|

Nick Perrone had just turned 20 on Sept. 11, 2001 and was sleeping in when he suddenly awoke to a call from his mom.

“Turn on the television, I'm coming home,” she said, leaving her job at an Orange County grocery store.

On the television, like most Americans, he couldn’t fathom what he saw.

After the al-Qaida terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans and changed history, Perrone’s biggest question was: “Why did this happen?” His search for answers led him to study history, and he now teaches the subject at Santa Rosa Junior College.

A decade ago, at the front of the class at a different junior college, he began his lesson with, “Well, we all remember what happened on 9/11.” To his astonishment, the students shook their heads. No, they did not remember.

Perrone is among the legions of history and social studies teachers across the nation grappling with how to instruct students with evermore distant ties to the worst terrorist attacks on American soil. Many in Perrone’s class had not even been born by that time. But they have grown up in a country at war and witnessed recent reports of the disastrous American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Teachers are confronting students’ generational distance from the attacks and the warp of social media and conspiracy theories that have sprung up around them, as well as the political complexity of America’s war on terror and poor record of nation building.

Sonoma County teachers say they’ve crafted their lessons on 9/11 to focus on the history behind, during and after the terrorist attacks, so that the younger generation can understand how the events shaped world history.

“That whole history of why did we go to Iraq and Afghanistan, why has it dragged on … A lot of students don’t have that background information,” said Johannes Van Gorp, a history instructor at SRJC.

Van Gorp noted the younger generation is grappling with a historic global pandemic and resulting economic crisis, so for them, “September 11 is more of an abstract concept.”

Thomas Warf, an 11th grade U.S. history teacher at Healdsburg High School, takes an approach similar to Perrone’s, providing students with primary sources and facilitating a discussion so they can, “connect it to current events and what's happening now.”

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, about 20 of Warf’s students were engaged in a reading exercise about 9/11. Warf asked the students if they had any questions and they urged him to share his personal story. He was in college, he told them, and woke up with the news on television. Then he was in shock.

The lesson unfolded in a lecture, an assignment and clips from a documentary detailing U.S. involvement in Afghanistan during the Cold War a decade before the attacks.

Viola Santana, left, and Edgar Campos watch a video of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, during their history class at Healdsburg High School on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Viola Santana, left, and Edgar Campos watch a video of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, during their history class at Healdsburg High School on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Watching footage from the collapse of the south tower, students became suddenly attentive, sitting on the edge of their chairs with wide eyes. Some even gasped at footage of New Yorkers running from the giant dust cloud after the tower collapsed.

“I really feel like I have more sympathy after seeing those videos,” said Viola Santana, 15.

Earlier she had been teased by her classmates for not knowing who al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden was. Others shared that they also hadn’t known much about him either―or the back story of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the attack on the Pentagon and the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

“Before this, I knew [9/11] was important, but now I see how much it changed the entire U.S.,” Santana said.

Citlaly Rosilla, 16, said the lesson opened her eyes to the violent and complex history leading up to the attacks.

“I knew who was behind [the attacks] but I didn’t know what was going on, why they did that and their reasons for it,” Rosilla said.

Students in Bella Barclay's eighth grade history class at Healdsburg Junior High School were all born about seven years after the 2001 attacks.

“I knew the twin towers collapsed, but I didn’t know what had happened until Ms. Barclay told me about it,” said Lilianna Reyes.

Reyes and some of her classmates completed an extra credit assignment that Barclay offers every year about the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath. The students each interviewed a person who bore witness to or survived the attacks, asking them how both they and the country changed.

Sia Huebel interviewed her half-sister's grandfather, who worked in one of the World Trade Center towers, she said. Growing up, Huebel said she remembers her family telling the story of how the grandfather happened to call in sick that day, which the rest of the family learned only after hours of frantic phone calls.

Huebel's conversation with him “was definitely eye-opening,” she said. “I had known about those events for a while and in my mind it was like 'That’s a horrible thing,' but talking to him … it was a whole new perspective from someone who was watching it from his window.”

Huebel, Reyes and their classmate Isaac Bermejo all said learning more about the attacks made them feel varying degrees of fear and grief.

“It makes me really sad that a lot of people died,” Bermejo said. “I just was really sad.”

Barclay said she sometimes questions how to approach such a difficult subject with her young students.

“It’s hard, “ she said. “I tread lightly only because sometimes it brings up more intense political views from home.”

Barclay said she’s on the fence about whether the 9/11 assignment should be mandatory. About 70% of her students are from Latino families and many of their parents weren’t in the U.S. when the attacks happened.

She added that she doesn’t want any Muslim students to feel uncomfortable or to be bullied, touching on some of the ugly domestic fallout from the attacks.

“We’re still struggling to figure out how to make the situation better, especially with what’s going on in Afghanistan,” Barclay said. “They’re complicated topics and they’re middle schoolers.”

Barclay said on Sept. 11, they pause their usual curriculum to learn about the terrorist attacks by watching two videos and doing a silent free-write.

Perrone said he approaches his teaching of 9/11 with a recognition that the events faded from public consciousness much faster than he thought they would have.

“The problem is without context, without deeper understanding, you only get a simplified view of what happened and you end up getting a false narrative that this was an unprovoked attack,” he said.

Warf said many students arrive to class with misconceptions or beliefs fueled by conspiracy theories about 9/11, but that they seem “relieved” to hear the facts in a school setting rather than at home, online or through the grapevine.

“As the years go on [students know] less and less,” said Matt Transue, a social studies teacher at Rancho Cotate High School in Rohnert Park.

Every year he begins teaching 9/11 lessons by asking the students what they know about it. Early on, kids were old enough to remember and they talked about their personal stories and ties to those who had died in the attacks or witnessed them.

Now, “there’s little to no association they can relate to, so it's harder to comprehend,” he said. “We show them the videos, they read the stories and as the years go on, it becomes another historical event.”

Transue approaches his 9/11 lessons by sharing his personal story before he talks about how it shaped public policy and law.

He does this because when students see Transue, their 6’ 3“ football coach and history teacher, getting emotional when he talks about that day, he hopes they might get a little closer to understanding the overwhelming impact it had on generations of Americans.

Transue was 25 years old at the time, studying in Colorado to become a history teacher. Afterward, many of his friends and classmates enlisted in the U.S. military.

“It was surreal,” Transue said. “It solidified my rationale for teaching,” while shaping his world-view.

“If we don’t keep telling the story, it becomes a glazed-over chapter in the history book,” he said, tearing up.

“It’s too important to forget.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-521-5224 or alana.minkler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @alana_minkler.

Alana Minkler

Breaking news & general assignment reporter, The Press Democrat

The world is filled with stories that inspire compassion, wonder, laughs and even tears. As a Press Democrat reporter covering breaking news, tribes and youth, it’s my goal to give others a voice to share these stories.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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